• The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

    Author(s): Frances E. Jensen, MD with Amy Ellis Nutt

    The Teenage Brain

    I teach a class at Sonoma State University each spring with Julie Natalini, Counselor at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa.  We attended graduate school together and spend a great deal of time reading the same literature and sharing resources.  This spring, we both read the book, The Teenage Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, by Frances E Jensen.  Julie was quicker to write about the book than I was, and has graciously offered to let me share her Newsletter with you.  Here it is.

    “I read the book discussed in the link below earlier this year.  The link will also take you to a 30-minute interview with the author. Working with teens all day and living with them at home (ages 16, 14 and 11) it was a very helpful resource to understand WHY they do the seemingly crazy things they do! I have been thinking a lot about teens in relation to electronics, social media and drugs/alcohol as I am confronted with information on these issues on a daily basis. Working ‘in the trenches’ if you will has given me an advantage to raising my own children in terms of our conversations, understandings and boundaries and helped guide me to set parameters that are reasonable but allow them to feel safe and supported. There is no guide book to parenting and we do not all agree on rules, boundaries and consequences, but I wanted to share with you this resource and my own advice (as a counselor and a parent of teens) that is supported by research and experience.

    1.      Drugs and alcohol are NOT ok for teenage brains. If they start chronic use at a young age (before their brain is developed) the chances of becoming an addict increases to 60%. Those are not good odds. Have constant conversations with your children about this-share all of the latest research until they are rolling their eyes. If you allow them to go to parties-it’s really ok to check to see if the parents are going to be home.

    2.      ‘Smart’ phones are having a devastating effect on our children. Anecdotally, teens are incredibly less resilient than a generation ago. They have not learned to have ‘down time’ and quiet which has led to a BRAIN that is unable to relax and de-stress on its own. Do not have phones at the dinner table-this is a time to learn listening and speaking skills clear of distractions. Allow/enforce quiet time for your teens. In our home-ALL electronics are put into a central location at 9:00 pm. This allows an hour or so to destress, quiet, talk, read, etc. before….

    3.      SLEEP! See point #2 above. This is the time the brain puts all of the information in place. Electronics are having a damaging effect on the sleep pattern of our teens that might stay with them forever. Their brains NEED this time to rest, process and DEVELOP. We can make sure our children have proper sleep (which means no electronics in the room) because we love them. Don’t let them tell you, “but, I need it for my alarm!”

    4.      Social Media-Ugh. I don’t have to tell you all of the problems that are caused through Instagram, snap, Facebook, etc. But, as parents we can and should look at their posts. Check on a regular basis and talk to them about what you see. I realize there are ‘finstas’ (fake Instagram) and other ways around us seeing, but many teens are posting pictures of drug/alcohol use and other dangerous or questionable behaviors all of the time…just go look. My daughter comes to me on a regular basis to show me what her other ‘friends’ are posting. If that were my child….oh my. This is not about trust, this is about keeping our kids safe. In my opinion, we have given them a very powerful weapon-with no training or oversight.

    I hope you can take some time to listen to the interview, read the short article or even read the book. Again, I want to acknowledge that all families are different and rules need to be established that work for parents and children. Our structure works for us, so far…”




    BOOK SYNOPSIS  (courtesy of Jess Hazlewood, Sonoma State University Graduate School of Counseling, Spring 2018)

    “Teenagers may look like adults, them may even think like adults in many ways, and their ability to learn is stagger, but knowing what teenagers are unable to do—what their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral limitations are—is critically important.” (p. 64)



    ·         Between 10-14 years development of prospective memory (ability to remember to do something) does not improve like the rest of development.

    ·         Immature parietal lobes makes it difficult to focus on complex tasks or move between two complex tasks.

    ·         Overgrowth of connections why teens can learn things quickly

    ·         More information is repeated, the stronger the connection between neurons. Familiar information has a stronger response in neuron receptor.

    ·         Teens have more excitatory synapses so can learn faster if repeated.

    ·         Density of gray matter makes it hard for brain to pick out right signals

    ·         Pruning (working on brain efficiency) happen during teen years



    ·         Teens are “owls”: wake late and stay up late

    ·         Melatonin (hormone that induces sleep) releases 2 hours later than adults, and stays in the body longer over night

    ·         Sleep patterns controlled by brain signaling and hormones so body doesn’t “adjust” even when rise early for school

    ·         Most teens are losing avg of 2.75 hours a day of sleep

    ·         Teens need more sleep because  brain “pruning” is happening then

    ·         Sleep solidifies learning: learners who study before bed have better retention than those who study earlier in the day

    ·         “Sleeping on it” leads to better accuracy, esp. motor skills



    ·         Underdeveloped frontal cortex= difficulty seeing ahead (consequences)

    ·         Loose connection with frontal area means hard for them to exert good judgment

    ·         Prefrontal cortex where negative information is stored, so adolescents have less ability to process negative info

    ·         Teens not irrational: reasoning abilities fully developed by age 15

    ·         Teen brains get more of a reward releasing more dopamine and more responsive to it

    ·         “Chief predictor of adolescent behavior is not perception of the risk, but the anticipation of the reward despite the risk. In other words, gratification is at the heart of adolescent’s impulsivity…” (p. 107)


    Drugs & Alcohol

    ·         Teens can get addicted faster than adults; because greater release of dopamine and more response to rewards, teen brains are more responsive to drugs.

    ·         More teens smoke, less activity in prefrontal cortex (decision-making center)

    ·         Cigarette and marijuana use may be linked to mood disorders because early exposure to chemicals causes changes in brain

    ·         Teen brain better at processing side effects of drugs and alcohol like coordination, sleepiness, and hangovers; means they need more to feel effect

    ·         Alcohol impairs memory more easily in teens than adults; THC in marijuana disrupts development of neural pathways

    ·         Teen use of alcohol, marijuana & other drugs (e.g., Ecstasy) linked to smaller brain volume, reduced gray matter, and increased damage to white matter

    ·         Teen use changes the way brain processes info and makes adult addiction more likely


    Stress & Mental Health:

    ·         Because the teen brain is more active, it is also experiencing more stress

    ·         Teen brain driven more by emotion than reason; higher amygdala response than children or adults

    ·         Less activity in frontal cortex makes it harder to handle emotions

    ·         Hormone THP, which is calming in adults, creates more anxiety in teens

    ·         Cortisol levels slightly higher in teens (esp. girls) than adults; connected to negative emotions like stress, worry, anxiety, and anger

    ·         Stress inhibits ability to learn because of surge of cortisol

    ·         Trauma can increase size of amygdala

    ·         1 in 5 teens suffer from mental or behavioral disorder

    ·         ½ of all adult mental health disorders begin in teen years

    ·         Primary trigger for mental illnesses is stress

    ·         Anxiety and depression connected to amygdala activity; prefrontal cortex not able to “talk down” amygdalae responses to control

    Sports, Gender, Tech, and Crime:

    ·         Response to tech is like response to drugs

    ·         Teens seek stimulus and reward; text message creates dopamine rush

    ·         Gamin changes our brain, but not clear if positive or negative: improves visuospatial skills, but impairs ability to make decisions

    ·         Behavior additions just like chemical additions because use same brain circuits

    ·         Gender differences in brains: women have more connections between hemispheres (greater ability to switch tasks, organizational skills; men have more connections within hemispheres

    ·         Teens have longer-lasting consequences from concussions, likely because brain still maturing and injury disrupts this process

    ·         Teens accused of crimes often judged based on adult brain functioning they don’t possess.

    ·         Brain development ongoing into twenties


    Jensen’s Tips for Parents


    • Take TV and computer out of bedroom at night and turn off 1 hour before bedtime to relax over-stimulated eyes and brain. Suggest they do offline activities before bed and the same activities every night
    • Be a good role model for your teens with drug and alcohol use; parents shape adolescent behavior.
    • Keep talking with your teens about smoking, drinking, and drug use. They have a hard time with thinking about future consequences, but they will keep hearing you.
    • Treat your teens with respect and acknowledge their ability to learn facts and reason.
    • Show your disappointment. Studies show fear of losing trust and respect of parents is “greatest deterrent” to drug use.
    • Be watchful, ask questions, and take behavior changes seriously. Addiction and mental health concerns in teens change their adult brain and future susceptibility.
    • Know that resilience is learned and share this with your teens (esp. those that have experienced trauma).
    • Encourage your teens to set limits (stressful commitments, tech, etc.) and cultivate downtime.
    • Take brain injuries very seriously; consider future exposure to high impact sports.
    • Remember your college-aged teens and beyond still have developing brains.

    The (Teen) Brain:

    • Connectivity of the brain moves from back of brain to front. The last places to “connect” are the frontal lobes.
    • Teen brain: 80% matured


    Frontal lobe: judgment, insight, impulse control

    Low myelin in teens makes it difficult for the parts of the brain to communicate, such as amygdala to frontal lobe (why teens freeze or panic in crisis)

    Temporal lobe: emotion, sexuality, language

    Parietal lobe: movement, sensation, helps frontal lobes focus

    Occipital lobe: vision

    Cerebellum: coordination

    Brainstem: automatic biological functions (breathing, heart rate, etc.)

    Limbic System: “..crossroads of the brain, where emotions and experiences are integrated”; includes hippocampus and amygdala

    Hippocampus: memory processing, encoding and retrieving

    “supercharged” in teen brain

    Amygdala: sexual and emotional behavior

    “very susceptible” to hormones and adrenaline

    Neurons: 100 billion in the human brain, referred to as “grey matter”

    Connections grow from experience (neural pathways), but pruning of excess connections doesn’t happen until late adolescence.

    Synapse: point of contact between two neuron; can excite or inhibit

    It takes longer for teens to figure out when to not do something (inhibition signals) because they have more excitatory synapses than inhibitory.

    Myelin: allows faster communication between neurons, referred to as “white matter”

    Developing and increasing during adolescence

    Dopamine: helps motivate, drive, and focus the brain; reward

    Teen brains release more than an adult’s


    Book Synopsis courtesy of Jess Hazlewood, Sonoma State University Graduate School of Counseling, Spring 2018


    Updated 4/30/2018